Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The danger of myside bias

Fighting bad thinking is an uphill battle some days.

I'm very much including myself in this assessment.  I have biases and preconceived notions and places where I stumble just like everyone else.  Fixing these errors would be nice -- can you imagine the world if all of us were able to think clearly and make our decisions based on evidence?

A pipe dream, I know, and all the more so after I read a new paper in Journal of Cognitive Psychology called "My Point is Valid, Yours is Not: Myside Bias in Reasoning About Abortion," by Vladimíra Čavojová, Jakub Šrol, and Magdalena Adamus of the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, Slovakia.

In an elegant piece of research, Čavojová et al. gave a series of logic puzzles to volunteers who had been asked in a prior questionnaire what their attitudes toward abortion were, and whether they had prior experience with formal logic.  They were then asked to determine whether various syllogisms were valid or not.  Some were neutral:
All mastiffs are dogs.
Some mastiffs are black.
Therefore, some of the things that are black are dogs. 
Some had to do with abortion:
All fetuses are human beings
Some human beings should be protected.
Therefore, some of those who should be protected are fetuses. 
To solve each of the syllogisms, it should be irrelevant what your opinion on abortion is; the rules are that if the premises (the first two statements) are true, and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is true.  The participants were told from the outset to treat the premises as true regardless of their views.

Gregor Reisch, Logic Presents Its Main Themes (ca. 1505) [Image is in the Public Domain]

What is fascinating is that both people who were pro-choice and pro-life had a hard time rejecting invalid syllogisms that gave them a conclusion they agreed with, and accepting valid syllogisms that gave them a conclusion they disagreed with.  This pattern held equally with people who had training in formal logic and those who did not.  It's as if once we're considering a strongly-held opinion, our ability to use logic goes out the window.

The authors write:
The study explores whether people are more inclined to accept a conclusion that confirms their prior beliefs and reject one they personally object to even when both follow the same logic.  Most of the prior research in this area has relied on the informal reasoning paradigm; in this study, however, we applied a formal reasoning paradigm to distinguish between cognitive and motivational mechanisms leading to myside bias in reasoning on value-laden topics (in this case abortions).  Slovak and Polish (N = 387) participants indicated their attitudes toward abortion and then evaluated logical syllogisms with neutral, pro-choice, or pro-life content.  We analysed whether participants’ prior attitudes influenced their ability to solve these logically identical reasoning tasks and found that prior attitudes were the strongest predictor of myside bias in evaluating both valid and invalid syllogisms, even after controlling for logical validity (the ability to solve neutral syllogisms) and previous experience of logic.

Which reinforces my not very optimistic notion that however good our brains are, humans remain primarily emotional creatures.  When something elicits a strong emotional response, we're perfectly willing to abandon reasoning -- and sometimes aren't even aware we're doing it.

All of which bodes nothing good from any attempt to correct these errors.  As we've discussed before, even trying to combat bad thinking initiates the backfire effect, wherein people tend to double down on beliefs if they're challenged, and even if they're given concrete evidence that they're wrong.

Makes you wonder what I think I'm accomplishing by writing this blog, doesn't it?

It's not futile, however; however this emotional bent is impossible to eradicate, you can adjust for it as long as you know it's there.  So I suppose this research should give us hope that even if we can't think with perfect clarity all the time, we can at least move in the right direction.

This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is from the brilliant essayist and polymath John McPhee, frequent contributor to the New Yorker.  I swear, he can make anything interesting; he did a book on citrus growers in Florida that's absolutely fascinating.  But even by his standards, his book The Control of Nature is fantastic.  He looks at times that humans have attempted to hold back the forces of nature -- the attempts to keep the Mississippi River from changing its path to what is now the Atchafalaya River, efforts in California to stop wildfires and mudslides, and a crazy -- and ultimately successful -- plan to save a harbor in Iceland from a volcanic eruption using ice-cold seawater to freeze the lava.

Anyone who has interest in the natural world should read this book -- but it's not just about the events themselves, it's about the people who participated in them.  McPhee is phenomenal at presenting the human side of his investigations, and their stories will stick with you a long time after you close the last page.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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